Antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in 4-million-year-old cave

The Dolls Theater, encountered during the Big Room Route of the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.
National Park Service/Peter Jones
The Dolls Theater, encountered during the Big Room Route through the Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.
National Park Service/Peter Jones

(CBS News) In a 4-million-year-old cave, scientists may have discovered the secret as to why our modern day drugs to treat some infections are failing.

Four-hundred-eighty-seven meters below the earth in the Lachuguilla cave system, part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, researchers discovered that drug resistance has been around, well, forever. Although many people have blamed the fact that we are overusing antibiotics and creating "superbugs," it seems that bacteria's drug resistance evolved naturally millions of years ago.

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The cave, which is coated in the ancient bacteria, has never encountered modern medicine. Amazingly, these bacteria can still fight off different kinds of antibiotics, including synthetic drugs.

"Clinical microbiologists have been perplexed for the longest time. When you bring a new antibiotic into the hospital, resistance inevitably appears shortly thereafter, within months to years," lead researcher Gerry Wright, a chemical biologist at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, told National Geographic.

"It's still a big question: Where is this coming from?" Wright said. "Almost no one thought to look at other bacteria, the ones that don't necessarily cause disease."

According to Wright's new study, published in the April 11 issue of  PLoS One, 93 types of bacteria found in the cave were tested against 26 different antibiotics. Seventy percent were able to resist three or four kinds of antibiotics. Three anthrax-related bacteria resisted 14 different types of antibiotics. The results suggest that drug resistance is at least millions of years old and not a man-made phenomenon.

"This supports a growing understanding that antibiotic resistance is natural, ancient, and hard wired in the microbial pangenome," the study's authors wrote.

Does that mean overuse of antibiotics are not to blame? World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Dr. Margaret Chan told an audience at a Copenhagen symposium in March 2012 that overuse of antibiotics could make it so that one day something as common as a "scratched knee could once again kill" because of these "superbugs,"HealthPop reported. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)also made recent strides to stop the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture to prevent resistance, asking drug companies to voluntarily stop using antibiotics in livestock feed.

However the study's authors claim that the new evidence does not disprove the role of antibiotic overuse , but reinforces that people need to be more careful with what antibiotics they use.

"This fact further underlines the importance of the judicious use of antibiotics to avoid selection of existing resistance elements and their subsequent mobilization through microbial communities thereby limiting the effectiveness of these drugs to treat infectious diseases," they wrote.